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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 8, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 15
A recent Blu-ray of Elektra supplants an old standard
Arts & Entertainment
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A recent Blu-ray of Elektra supplants an old standard

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

ELEKTRA
RICHARD STRAUSS
WIENER PHILHARMONIKER
ARTHAUS MUSIK


If you already know and love Richard Strauss' early 20th century opera Elektra, I can recommend this Blu-ray disc very highly. I just compared the experience of watching it to the much older DVD with Leonie Rysanek under Karl Bohm, and I much prefer the new disc on almost every level. Granted that Rysanek had, even at this late moment in her career, a much more powerful and beautiful voice than the current Irene Theorin. Except for her easy top notes, Theorin lacks an instrument rich enough to express vocally the emotional extremes of Elektra's state. But her well-focused acting will for many viewers make up for any vocal deficiency. And whoever said Elektra should sound beautiful?!

Both videos employ the superb Vienna Philharmonic, but the superior sound of the newer Blu-ray yields a vastly more satisfying experience of Strauss' fabulous score. Conductor Daniele Gatti leads a transparent and powerful reading of this complex orchestration, revealing every detail and dynamic extreme. The recording engineers get the balances just right, never swamping the vocal lines, while allowing the listener to explore every orchestral detail - no small achievement.

Although there is no hint of an audience in this live performance at the Salzburg Festival of 2010, it is nonetheless a real performance, whereas the 1981 film with Rysanek is a lip-synched movie, with often jarring discrepancies between sight and sound. To seasoned opera fans, the sight of a singer's physical involvement in producing a sound is an essential part of the experience; and that is totally missing from the older disc. (Rysanek even at one point seems to take a catch breath in the middle of a sustained note!)

One of the thrills of the newer disc is the Klytämnestra of Waltraud Meier, shown here still at the height of her vocal powers. Like Meryl Streep, she seems to delight in prying out every emotive expression she can find in a role; and this tormented lady provides a rich trove to reveal. The confrontation between her and Elektra is a delight to watch. The great Astrid Varnay on the older disc is hardly less engaging, but the connection with Rysanek seems stagey in comparison.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elektra's sister is superior both vocally and dramatically in the new disc to Catarina Legendza's strained singing and unconvincing acting. The chief disappointment in the newer cast is René Pape's wooden Orest. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau moves less and expresses far more with Rysanek, and the role lies more comfortably in his voice. Pape pours out the tones and doesn't seem to be saving himself vocally in this brief role, but he's somehow awkward and lacks the regal elegance of Fischer-Dieskau.

Filming an opera, as opposed to videoing a staged performance, provides all kinds of artistic freedom to a director, and this famed production under director Götz Froedrich makes the most of it. (Seattle Opera in its most recent Elektra copied the idea here of blood pouring down the outside walls of the palace as Orest kills the villains.) The 'dance' of Klytämnestra's servants as she enters to talk with Elektra is particularly effective. But I found the staged version dramatically effective despite a few clichés, like the pistol toting Overseer. In fact, the score and libretto are so powerful that one might see Froedrich's liberties rather as overkill (if such is possible in this opera!).

An advantage of the older DVD is a second disc full of an excellent documentary about the production, with lots of behind-the-scenes moments with Rysanek and conductor Karl Böhm. The Blu-ray provides exactly nothing of the sort, but the airy, dynamic sound of the DTS-HD Surround Sound more than makes up for this omission.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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